Career options as a classical musician

June 9, 2018, 3:34 AM · Hi everyone,

As I'm getting to that age where I need to start to consider future tertiary options, I am unsure whether or not to go to a conservatory or not to further refine my musicianship.

I'm obviously not going to get a soloist career, seeing as I started violin aged 10 (I'm 16 now), and my technique is no where near as good as I want it to be. (I've just started to play the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and the whole Bach G minor sonata, and other recently played works would be the Mendelssohn (whole), Beethoven Spring Sonata (whole) and Tambourin Chinois.

So, is it really worth it attending a conservatory to become a better violinist? What options would be viable as I would never be able to get entry into top tier schools, such as Julliard, Curtis, NEC, University of Music in Vienna, Colburn etc... I absolutely love playing the violin, but considering my options, I don't think it's worth studying further?

And, even if I did go to a conservatory graduating with a performance degree, what career options would I have? I feel like it's quite limited and I can't think of any performance careers other than playing in an orchestra.
I would like to be in a professional string quartet/piano trio, but I'm unsure this is possible either. Other ideas include: cruise ship musician, violin teacher, musicologist or music historian (I also have a huge interest in studying great composers and their lives, and I would love to go through and analyse old scores, or artefacts. I don't know anything about this career option and what level of musicianship or the requirements are, but if anyone has any information, feel free to let me know.)


Thank you for taking your time to read my thread.

K

Replies (57)

June 9, 2018, 5:19 AM · Getting anything full time in music is tough but don't quit now if you love it. You're only 16, and your list of pieces is impressive. You can always double major. One thing schools do seem to have money for is a good student who also excels at an instrument. Several of my students have gotten decent scholarships to study in college with no intention of being professional violinists.

Anyone who can play Introduction and Rondo well at your age is a step above your normal "good" violin student.

Is somebody telling you you should quit or is this coming purely from within?

June 9, 2018, 7:30 AM · "...musicologist or music historian (I also have a huge interest in studying great composers and their lives, and I would love to go through and analyse old scores, or artefacts..."

Musicology is an academic field. If you want to pursue it, you will need to get a doctorate, which means probably 1-2 years in a masters program, and then probably 2-3 years of classwork at the doctoral level, and finally a book-length research project known as as a dissertation.

It's a long road, with many years of no income. Jobs in academia, especially full-time jobs, are getting harder to come by as colleges try to get by with part-timers.

For anyone interested in college teaching and want to know the state of the job market, I'd recommend
reading the Chronicle of Higher Education (free access to jobs ads) or the Music Vacancy List (by subscription). Follow these for a year, and then decide on whether you should make the commitment.

June 9, 2018, 7:53 AM · What are your other interests/hobbies? Most professionals do a combined career with orchestra playing, chamber music, solos, gigs, and teaching. You can always study further with a great teacher, and play in ensembles for pleasure. Some professionals might be in so-called chamber music clubs, where they're in a large group of musicians interested in performing chamber music, and they earn some money performing concerts. They play works with various instrumentations.
Edited: June 9, 2018, 8:51 AM · You can also get a performance degree from a university and that will give you some credentials for expanded opportunities especially if you go on for a more advanced degree. Even if you stay in the music profession this will give you some of what you need for teaching at the college or university level. I know several fine musicians who have gone that route and done very well teaching at the public community college level - and continued to compose and perform solos, chamber music and with professional "regional" symphony orchestras.* (P.S. They seem to be able to "retire" at about age 60 and continue on in music as teachers, emeritus instructors as well as performers.)

*Orchestras such as the Marin Symphony, Santa Rosa Symphony and Berkeley Symphony are regional symphony orchestras in my area.

June 9, 2018, 9:23 AM · We could learn something from our colleagues over in the Theater department. Acting students know, even better than musicians, that their chances of becoming full-time pro. actors are slim. So most of them also learn an ancillary craft; stage crew, carpentry, costuming, sound and lighting tech., business, etc. and it is those other skills that frequently become the day-job that pays the rent.
Edited: June 9, 2018, 12:52 PM · One career option that I think is overlooked is to join the military and be in one of the orchestras. The Marine Corps Band in particular has a very good string section. It is probably pretty competitive, but it pays well, gets a pension, and not "military" in the traditional sense. Check out their website for audition info and requirements to get a feel for what they have to offer. Browse through the biographies and you'll see a lot of bachelors and masters in music from good schools.

Edit: found a link to a very good blog post from a trombonist who was a member http://trombone.org/articles/library/viewarticles.asp?ArtID=265

June 9, 2018, 12:52 PM · At this stage I think it all depends on how well you're playing these pieces. If they're well within your technical range (i.e. You can learn each in piece/mvt in a month or so of steady practice) then I certainly wouldn't write off an orchestral career. Probably not in the NY Phil but if you went to a really good teacher and worked hard for the next 6-8 years you could audition for pro orchestras, particularly if you went abroad. Depending on where you're located you could also potentially make a living as a freelancer, playing weddings and other gigs, and teaching. If you really love the violin I wouldn't write off a career just yet - keep playing and see how it goes.
June 9, 2018, 4:51 PM · The military string ensembles are great but they are exactly as competitive to get into as any other professional orchestra paying a comparable salary.
Edited: June 9, 2018, 5:23 PM · I live in the DC area. The military orchestras attached to this area are basically like any other full-time professional symphony, in terms of the caliber of player they attract. Many of the players in those orchestras also freelance and teach in this area, and the some of them are principals in the local freeway philharmonics, which gives you a good idea of how they compare to other pros.
June 9, 2018, 5:47 PM · In my conversations with local pros pros over the past few years, I've discovered that a not-insignificant number have day jobs. (This obviously excludes people who have full-time orchestra positions.)

The rationale: You can't make a living through gigs alone. You either need to teach or you need to have another source of income. Some people don't like teaching, or don't like doing a lot of teaching. You can have another full-time professional career that pays well, has good benefits (health insurance et.al.), and still have time to play paid gigs and, if you really like teaching, still have a few students, too.

(I add to that another argument: If you really love music, you can also find a broad range of unpaid opportunities, although there's a change in identity involved in that. I find that the folks who still think "day job" despite a significant other career tend to identify themselves as professional violinists, and thus a different category.)

Your performance degree will, for the purpose of raw credentialism, be equivalent to any undergrad liberal arts degree, pretty much. You are just as qualified or unqualified for a job as someone else that did a degree that doesn't directly lead to a profession. Your situation is probably somewhat complicated by needing to get a visa to work in a country other than your home country, though.

By the way, last fall, you posted a recording of Mendelssohn and received quite a bit of feedback. It'd be interesting to know where you are now, since you were on a trajectory of rapid improvement from your previous year (Kabalevsky, I think). Can you post a recording of your current playing, so we have some idea of your current level?

June 10, 2018, 4:48 AM · Sorry to get back to you all so late! I'm so glad people have commented on my thread.
To be short, I would like to have a steady income in the future, and I currently do gigs and wedding performances but I wouldn't like to do this as a permanent career.
Are professional chamber groups well paid? I know I can't become a soloist but I am seriously considering a career in music and I just want to know if that's just realistic enough for me to have a normal living. (please note, no one has ever discouraged me from my dreams- my mother, my violin teacher (who has taught Ray Chen during his younger years) and my community is just so supportive- it's just me facing reality.)
I don't necessarily want to be rich in the future, I just want to have a job that I can enjoy :)

Also, to Lydia, yes I did post the video of Mendelssohn and I've improved since that recording. I will be performing the 3rd movement at Carnegie Hall on the 30th June and hopefully I can get a recording of that to post.

Again, thank you for your feedback.

June 10, 2018, 6:51 AM · If anything, I think it is harder to make a fulltime living as a professional chamber musician than it is to land a gig in a fulltime orchestra. The path to such a career resembles the soloist track more than the orchestral track in that it requires winning competitions. Most groups that "make it" also have residencies at universities so there is significant teaching involved.

I do have colleagues who have formed successful chamber ensembles but those are an adjunct to their day jobs in my orchestra, and do not provide a fulltime income.

I don't think you're out of the running to win an orchestral job in the future based on your improvement curve. All you can do is give it your best shot, if you can manage the financial and emotional stress of taking multiple auditions--winning a job is a game of large numbers, and yes, some people who are "good enough" are not going to win their dream job. After you complete your degree, get additional coaching from someone who listens to professional auditions--this means a concertmaster or principal second violin of a major orchestra, most likely--record yourself, ask for comments after every audition you take--basically, taking auditions will be your job.

Teaching and gigging is a great stopgap but make sure you don't schedule yourself past the ability to practice 5-6 hours a day for auditions. And if you enjoy teaching, then it isn't the end of the world if you don't win a 52-week job with a 6-figure salary. There are plenty of us in the smaller fulltime orchestras who have good lives as well, where the orchestra is still our "day job" but we also teach and gig as a part-time addition to our incomes. My orchestra salary alone would provide a living in my city but not a terribly comfortable one. I would not want to depend solely on teaching and gigging for my income but I enjoy teaching enough that it is no burden to be partially reliant on it.

June 10, 2018, 7:13 AM · Is it me--or do there seem to be a bazillion touring string quartets out there?
Seems like when I was growing up, there was the Juilliard, Emerson, Tokyo, etc. But these days there are so many young and excellent groups that it's hard to keep track of them. I wonder how they all make a living...
June 10, 2018, 9:57 AM · A lot of the young groups seem to be the graduate quartet-in-residence somewhere. So they are still students. And maybe if they're lucky, they'll move on to be the faculty quartet-in-residence somewhere. Even if they don't, their primary income likely comes from teaching.
June 11, 2018, 7:34 AM · No, I'm talking about fully-professional touring groups, not grad students.
June 11, 2018, 8:17 AM · I just got curious enough to go look at the quartet bios for the season's line-up at my city's major performance venues. It looks like the quartets that are not already well-established (i.e., not the Takacs or the like) are all ensembles-in-residence somewhere, most frequently a university.


June 11, 2018, 9:35 AM · Ensemble-in-Residence is not the same as a graduate quartet. Students on graduate assistantships don't go out and tour at major venues. I'm talking about groups that have graduated, won big competitions, and are now faculty. And there seem to be a lot of them.
June 11, 2018, 9:38 AM · Right. That was the second part of my earlier post: "And maybe if they're lucky, they'll move on to be the faculty quartet-in-residence somewhere."

My second post referencing ensembles-in-residence at a university refers to faculty quartets.

June 11, 2018, 6:30 PM · Quartets have to do a lot to survive these days.

A good friend's ensemble landed a plum faculty appointment at a major conservatory this past season, following grand prize wins at two internationally-recognized competitions. Even though they have extensive concert appearances, premieres of new music, and ongoing recording projects, they all still teach privately. They are also teaching at summer music festivals as part of their group activities.

June 13, 2018, 1:45 PM · Kaori,

You are a good musician. Unfortunately, there are a lot of good musicians in the world. Not knowing your interests outside music, consider a major in music/performance management.

That being said, a career of any kind can be mixed with a musical career that isn't your primary source of income (note: our host has a degree in journalism). I knew many Ph.D's at Bell Labs that also played musical instruments and had satisfying lives. A lot of composers had non-musical day-jobs. There are also many semi-pro orchestras that can be your musical outlet while working an alternate profession.

Have as many alternate ways of producing an income as possible and you will not be sad. I know more than a few great musicians who struggle to maintain a desirable life-style - they have one thing in common - all music degrees without any other qualifications.

June 14, 2018, 6:11 AM · "You are a good musician. Unfortunately, there are a lot of good musicians in the world"

Ah yes, the "pretty good musician" bear trap.
Many have stepped in that one...A lot of us limping around sans foot.

June 14, 2018, 5:45 PM · There are lot's of theaters who needs life music for every night performances and shows. And circuses as well :-)
June 14, 2018, 5:53 PM · Broadway shows pay good money, but those positions are exceptionally rare, very difficult to get, and have their own drawbacks (like playing the same show every day for years).

Practically no other shows these days pay decently. Many don't pay a union wage, and there's fierce competition even for the ones that barely pay the cost of gas to get there.

June 14, 2018, 7:24 PM · "There are lot's of theaters who needs life music for every night performances and shows. And circuses as well :-) "

You're kidding, right?

June 14, 2018, 7:37 PM · Well, Cirque du Soleil and Cirque Dreams generally employ a live violinist for each show. ;-)

June 14, 2018, 10:40 PM · Why kidding?
All theaters have life music. Ballet, Opera, Drama, special projects, modern show etc. And in most circuses i was, life music is a very big part of performance. If there is no life music, usually then circus is regarded as low-level-shapito. And even shapitos tend to have some small orchestra or at least band.
June 15, 2018, 5:26 AM · Where is this Shangri-La where every theater has live music?
June 15, 2018, 6:02 AM · K Ch, you are grotesquely overestimating the opportunity, both in terms of number of people employed and what it pays. ("Shapito" is not an English word, by the way, and a definition does not seem to be Googleable at all.)

At least around here, most community shows have live music with an orchestra, but you're generally talking about $30 per-service or something similarly terrible (I've seen as low as $15, and yet you still get pros taking that money), and in many cases it will be with a reduced orchestration, which means that there might be just a single string player per section.

Touring professional shows (including the circuses et.al.) generally have a small band these days. They might or might not employ a single violinist. They basically pay like full-time regional professional symphonies, but they are a limited-time contract that require you to be on the road 100% of the time.

Local professional shows often but do not always pay a union wage; they're already part of that patchwork of gigs that freelancers put together to stay afloat.

Edited: June 15, 2018, 7:43 AM · Now I understand the arc of my life:

When I was applying to grad schools in music, all the teachers were very enthusiastic and told me that someone of my calibre could look forward to "all the shapitos" I could ever want.

One guy even told me he even specialized in shapito auditions.

By the way, I discovered what country K Ch lives in:
1920.

June 15, 2018, 9:09 AM · touring broadway shows often hire local musicians, but that might be one or two violinists for a musical, and tend to be the same few people all the time - not a large source of jobs, and not lasting more than a couple weeks for each show. In the US, most ballet companies can't afford orchestras and use pre-recorded music.

I think shapito is a (possibly Russian) transliteration of chapiteau - so a small-tent circus.

June 15, 2018, 9:55 AM · I once had a room-mate who played tuba in the clown band on tour with Ice Capades. My day job for 30 years was: research or clinical lab-tech; histology, immunology, electron microscope... jq
Edited: June 15, 2018, 10:12 AM · Back in my day (maybe today even) colleges and music schools would lay out the options as Soloist (everybody encouraged to aim for this ideal image), chamber, orchestra and teaching - that was all your career choices. A fellow violinist at Guildhall in London was very good at playing Irish music (an already working). He was asked, "How seriously do you take the violin". He was later thrown off the course - partly, he thought, because of him playing Irish music. I heard of lots of stories like this back in the 80's and also stories of the 60's and 70's when it was much more extreme - apparently, a clarinet player could get thrown out for playing saxophone. At one of the London colleges I auditioned for I expressed I had an interest in jazz and was told, "Oh, don't say that here!"
I think things have come a long way, major colleges have jazz departments etc, or at least I would like to think so. However, some of these college teachers don't have to get a gig to survive and so don't always give the best career advice. The question is what things open other doors? Composing and arranging certainly does, taking a step outside of classical music does too. How about learning another instrument or learn about modern music making technology? When presented with these ideas though, the general idea seems to be that there is so much to learn in the classical repertoire and technique that it is not worth losing focus or time. The result of this is lots of violinists of a very high standard, all sounding very similar and all going for the same jobs. It's certainly not training to produce holistic musicians or even very flexibly employable ones in today’s precarious music world.
Other styles of music are other forms of employment - even for the classical musician. Start a tango band - Argentinian tango is beautiful music where the classical style fits pretty well with a bit of flexibility. Gypsy music - it’s virtuosic, fairly schmalzy with lots of vibrato - just add a bit more glissando! From here you can venture out. Gypsy jazz is maybe the next step. A word of caution - as you get to more modern music - modern, jazz, rock etc. you cannot impose a classical style on this music - listen to what a saxophone or guitar are doing in the style. Most of all, listen to the vocal style of the music and try to imitate it in every nuance. Learn about slides, ornaments, playing without vibrato when necessary - all the stylistic rules of the style. Then, you have a lot more doors open for you. If you compose and have your own ensemble you can call the shots and make the music of your dreams.
Get out of the box of “Soloist, orchestra, chamber, teacher (teacher of violinists that are going to be soloists, orchestra players, chamber - maybe teachers of violinists that are going to be soloists, orchestra…….).
Edited: June 15, 2018, 10:42 AM · Question is, how many of those folks playing little local band gigs manage to make a living from it? As far as I can tell, it just adds to the possibilities for your patchwork of gigs to make a living as a freelancer.

Ditto the arranging. You probably make a few bucks here and there, but unless you get a full-time job as an arranger/composer (vanishingly rare), you can't earn a living that way.

There's a guy in my area who had a pretty good NYC career playing for advertising jingles and whatnot, moved down here and took a job teaching violin in a school, freelances in a mixture of classical / fiddle / jazz / rock, does arrangements, and conducts, in order to make a living. Being flexible helps, but I'd bet constantly chasing the dime gets tiring. (And anyway, the OP says she already gigs but doesn't want to do that for a living.)

June 15, 2018, 12:23 PM · Lydia, I agree with you. It's not a career for the feint hearted.
Well they may be little local band gigs or touring the world - much like classical music.
It can be patchwork but I think that's fairly typical whether that be in your own field or having a day job as another patch.
I think one thing that changes everything is kids. Being a musician is both good and bad in that regard. The good is that you can be at home in the day with them when they are young and gig/teach in the evening. The bad is that when they are older and going to school then you working evenings and weekends or away on tour and success will mean this. I find composing a way around this as you can work on your schedule.
You can make money as a composer/arranger - Library/production music - off the peg music for television and media. With a computer you can easily have your own studio and do it all yourself. Can be lucrative although everyone seems to be jumping on the band wagon as everyone has their own studio these days - also, it's drying up in other areas so even big names are doing the library music thing.
June 15, 2018, 10:28 PM · It's not a path anyone necessarily recommends for music, but I went to a liberal arts college and had a number of friends doing music or music-y stuff. One is now a music librarian, one is a music prof at another liberal arts college, some did the law school/something with computers/education/social work/etc. People here could probably give you a few liberal arts colleges with good violinists in your chosen geographic area. I have also met some folk who did liberal arts and then conservatory for masters/doctoral work.
June 16, 2018, 3:58 AM · Wow, I just read all these comments. Interesting to hear the very contrasting views on the circus type career. Quite interested in the music library pathway possibly?
June 16, 2018, 4:52 AM · And also, not to be rude, but what does everyone here do as a living?
June 16, 2018, 6:12 AM · ))))))
Sure i was a bit too much, but if you do not broad the application of your desire, it is hard to find a place where you will be happy. Teaching/local bands is a very limited option. And it's limited by you.
Theaters, shows, TV-channels, radio.
F.ex here in Denmark, the local main channel of radio has its own professional orchestra. As well as all the theaters. The royal theater is the most prestigious, but there are many more...and each has its own band or small orchestra. Even local adventure park has its own orchestra.
Plus most of the open air events are served by life music.
And circus carrier is not so bad. In Denmark there is no permanent one, but in France, they have permanent building, the artists live in Paris, the program changes 2-3 times a year with 1-2 touring program.

Tv production needs a professional orchestra as well- all these voices, talent shows, dance with a star etc - there are plenty places where classical trained violist can get job.
Movie production etc. Someone has to play all the soundtracks to all the movies produced.

Violinst' job is limited as any scientist job, or designer job, or writer job, or any other creative profession.

The difficulty is that unlike scientist or writer, it is harder to change the specialisation within profession.

Very few people manage to work all life within the same area of expertise (i talk about all professions), and what you will do, when it will come to change for any reason an area of your expertise?


June 16, 2018, 6:25 AM · Classical music is mostly dead, and the dearth of professional opportunities corresponds to the lack of interest in the audience for paying enough for it to cover the gleam of the expected surroundings and lifestyle. Go into it if you will not to earn a living, but to make it live.
June 16, 2018, 6:46 AM · With respect to K Ch, I can't believe it's harder for a violinist to change specialisation than it is for a scientist.

In 1971 I made the decision to follow science as a career and music as a hobby, largely because the converse wasn't feasible. In science as in music the expected career path was clearly lit - postgraduate research in one's chosen field leading to a PhD and followed by a limited-term post-doctoral fellowship, culminating in a tenured reasearch and/or teaching post. Throughout this process and in succeeding years almost everyone becomes progressively more specialised, publishing regularly and hopefully building a national and international reputation.

Unfortunately this comfortable situation was progressively undermined in the 80's and 90's when research establishments realised they were carrying too many expensive, tenured staff whose most productive days were behind them. Far better, they decided it was, to structure programs around specific projects with limited time span, such that unproductive avenues could be quickly abandoned and funds switched to other specialities.

This, of course, means that the security of the scientific career is a thing of the past. Neither is it possible for mid-career scientists to follow the money and switch specialities, since the universities are continuously generating bright young researchers with shiny new ideas.

June 16, 2018, 7:04 AM · What K Ch doesn't see, I suspect, is that most of those gigs that they're talking about are taken by the same musicians. Where I live (Washington DC) there are a huge number of orchestras, local shows, etc., and we get a steady stream of touring productions across numerous theatrical venues. It's enough to support a substantial pool of freelancers, but they're all putting together a living from a bunch of these things plus teaching. And for TV, radio, etc. -- Google the plight of the LA studio musicians.

Facetiousness aside, the "opportunities" that K Ch has "identified" have already been factored in when we talk about the problems freelancers have. Freelancers are aware, and are already scrambling for all of them.

I've gigged in three different metro areas across my lifetime (Chicago, SF Bay Area, and DC) and over two decades, it's clear that pay has declined, the number of union gigs have declined, and the number of players competing for those gigs has gone up -- substantially. Europe appears to be better than the US because of the amount of state-sponsored music, and the massive social safety-net, but it's unclear to me how much that helps.

Classical music isn't mostly dead. There are more classical concerts than ever before, and if anything, I think more of my friends have classical pieces in their MP3 rotation than my parents' generation had classical LPs. There are a ridiculous number of orchestras out there. There are myriad chamber-music series. But some things that used to be a staple of a gigging musician's life, like wedding quartets, have become less common. (Most of the weddings I've been to in the last decade had an organist, or maybe a duo, but not a quartet.)

To answer your question, Kaori, I work in the technology industry in an executive-level job. I've played the violin both for love and money, though.

Edited: June 16, 2018, 7:46 AM · Become a cruise-ship entertainer. I saw Katei on a recent cruise from Skagway to Vancouver and he was awesome. Fantastic chops and a very athletic stage presence. https://kateiviolin.com/ Okay maybe the cruise ship circuit doesn't need two of these, but it gives you an idea for the scope of your opportunity if you're willing to be flexible about where you live and what you play.

I'm a chemistry professor and I wish I had learned the violin by the age of 16 as well as you have. Even though I could never have become a working pro musician, I still enjoy the violin but would enjoy it even more -- as an amateur -- with more skill. So my advice is to get as good as you can. Feel free to study performance in conservatory or university. It might not be "vocational training" in the same sense as a degree in mechanical engineering or data analytics, but it's not any worse than a degree in English literature or philosophy. The key is to get the full value of your university education by actually learning from your professors and developing yourself as a learner and citizen. That sounds very corny, I'm sure, but it's really true. And if you take the right courses "on the side" you can pivot to professional school afterward. It might take an extra year but if you're studying the violin then probably your parents have enough money for a 5-year college plan. Lots of "violin kids" do this. Remember that you've learned how to use your time, and you're obviously intelligent otherwise you wouldn't be doing IRC in your 6th year of violin study.

June 16, 2018, 8:15 AM · "Classical music is mostly dead, and the dearth of professional opportunities corresponds to the lack of interest in the audience for paying enough for it to cover the gleam of the expected surroundings and lifestyle. Go into it if you will not to earn a living, but to make it live."

Classical music isn't dead. The main issues are:

1. Schools cranking out musicians like there's no tomorrow.

I've always rolled my eyes at business models like Amway, Mary Kay, or now Uber. Their model, something people seem to willingly ignore, is to flood the market with sales people.

In music, the culprits are colleges and universities. The same thing has happened with 3rd-tier law schools, flooding the market with people who they know can't even pass the bar.

Every 3rd-rate college doesn't need a conservatory or doctoral program, dammit.

2. Expenses: classical music jobs are in urban areas, and expenses for instruments, housing, gas, auditioning, and health insurance have risen dramatically. And let's not talk about the students who graduated in deep debt with a music degree...The only way to make a million in music is to start with 2 million.

Edited: June 16, 2018, 8:59 AM · Classical music isn't dead, and it is possible to make a living in it if you are a good player with a serious work ethic, excellent people skills, and a little bit of luck. It is pretty much not possible to make a million dollars unless you are Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, or of similar stature. And for those who aren't so fortunate as to land a full-time orchestra job, the long-term feasibility of piecing together a living out of students, freeway philharmonics, and weddings, is questionable. That sort of life can get exhausting pretty quickly. It works much better if one is married to someone who has a decent job with benefits.

I agree that universities are cranking out more music students than there are places for them, even in the gig economy. I don't agree that people aren't using string quartets for weddings anymore. I play plenty of weddings.

To answer Kaori's question, I have had a position in a full-time American orchestra for 30 years. When I won the job, my orchestra had a 39-week season, which dovetailed perfectly with the summer music festival job I already had (and still have). Several pay cuts and one bankruptcy later, my orchestra has a 30 week season but we are hoping for growth in the future. Pay is comparable to that of a teacher in a private school. I also have a large private teaching studio and do a lot of playing and contracting outside of the symphony.

Making a living in classical music is neither as rosy a prospect as K Ch would have it, nor as moribund as J Ray claims, but you need to play well enough to take advantage of a lucky break when it comes. And there are good players who never get a lucky break.

June 17, 2018, 12:46 PM · "The main issues are:
1. Schools cranking out musicians like there's no tomorrow."

OMG, there are too many musicians, how will we ever survive them tomorrow?

I think pointing blame at education is misguided. The same could be said of many fields -- there are far too many fine arts majors, social science majors, etc. For lawyers it goes without saying. Even doctors - there are more of them than residence spots, etc. Even 'hard' sciences and engineering don't guarantee a job in the field. There are probably too many PhD's too. Education != job.

I think music education is unfairly maligned and under appreciated in general. It gives life to classical music. Without that transference of love and knowledge of music from teachers to students, that audience, small as it is relative to others, would be smaller still.

Teaching isn't something that's to be done if you've failed as a performer or just as a means to make ends meet. It's a legitimate, viable, and valuable calling which benefits individuals and communities. When it's done well, it is in a real sense, making music.

But not every classical performance, even when professionally done, is being heard and appreciated by the audience, and what we are hearing, we might already have heard a dozen times with nothing new added the next time. How many Sibelius concertos does one have to hear? Yet we're all supposed to aspire to perform it and regard it as a great achievement. It is only when what one hears in their own mind is better than what one has heard elsewhere, aspires to and successfully creates that, that that might actually be an enlargement of that music. Until then, it's only about self-education and a sort of vanity of expectation of interest.

June 17, 2018, 1:37 PM · Just came home from a fine string quartet concert by the Vertavo Quartet of Norway. Total commitment from the players (who travelled a long way to be in Adderbury UK), great enthusiasm from the audience. Unfortunately there were less than 100 of us in a church that holds at least 3 times that number. Conclusion: not a great choice of career for an aspiring young player
June 17, 2018, 3:49 PM · My good friend, who had a 30 year pro career as a violinist, did it by combining various income streams. She played with a good quartet that got gigs; she subbed at the Chicago Symphony and played in the pit of many touring musicals that came to Chicago;she taught at Oberlin as an adjunct. It all combined to keep her happy and playing, and making a living, at least until the bottom dropped out after the financial crisis hit, when chamber music subscriptions disappeared. By the time the smoke had cleared, it was too late--she had a "real" job and the people getting the gigs were the new kids just out of school. She has come to terms with this and seems happy in her new career.

But . . .financial crisis aside, doing it piecemeal can work, and work well. Given the fact that even the best orchestras these days have to play a lot of drivel to get butts in seats, she actually preferred doing it piecemeal to being stuck in just one job. She had her quartet to return to after a "poppy" set with the CSO or a musical. And while she never loved teaching, it was a change of pace.

I think you have to decide how much you love it. If this is what you want to do and nothing else will content you, go for it. But make sure you acquire some marketable non-musical skills/a useful second major. My friend is now a paralegal with a very good salary because she paid attention to her non-musical education. If she had not, she would have been in major doo-doo when the financial crisis hit.

June 17, 2018, 4:57 PM · Consider a school like Indiana University. Excellent, top tier music program with a ton of opportunities, but also a good all around undergraduate education. Double major in violin performance and something else more "useful" that you enjoy (psychology? music education? music administration?). This would cover all your bases. :-)
June 17, 2018, 5:37 PM · Looks like most of the comments you are getting are from folks involved as professional muscians and seem quite well-infomred. Let me comment as someone 50 years removed from where you are after having a similar life choice. Back then I was a trumpet player, only recently trying to re-invent myself as a violist. I strongly considered a musical career but ended up a physician. I had 3 close friends in high school who pursued music. Today one is a Fire Chief, another a Police Chief, and the other makes his living teaching elementary band and running rental property. A couple I met later are graduates of Indiana in music--masters and doctorate level. They worked in regional orchestras, including in Mexico and finally landed jobs in military bands (trumpet, clarinet). My friend a cellist with a degree from a respected university works as a church choir director and teaches. All of these folks have at times supplemented income with teaching. Me, as a hobbyist musician, have been able to enjoy myself in regional symphony, brass quintet, jazz band, church groups. In some respects, as probably an intermediate musician compared to most here, I might have enjoyed it more over the long term without a lot of the stress of working the mulitple income streams as someone aptly described.
June 17, 2018, 6:07 PM · Note that putting together a patchwork of gigs and teaching has serious financial implications even if you make a good living because of the difficulty of getting a mortgage or any other kind of loan that requires you to prove an income stream. You are considered self-employed.

One of the problems of double-majoring because you're unsure you can make it as a professional musician, when you're catching up as a violinist, is that it makes your core problem worse. You need extra hours of practice to keep up with your peers, but instead you're splitting your attention to do another major.

A performance degree isn't any worse than any other generic liberal arts degree. You'd need to major in something pre-professional -- computer science or engineering, say -- to make a material difference in future employment. But pre-professional majors tend to be intensive, and to maximize post-graduation employability, you need to do internships -- whereas if you're pursuing a music career you should do festivals and such during the summers.

Edited: June 17, 2018, 6:37 PM · "Note that putting together a patchwork of gigs and teaching has serious financial implications even if you make a good living because of the difficulty of getting a mortgage or any other kind of loan that requires you to prove an income stream. You are considered self-employed."

This isn't a problem as long as you are reporting all your income, which you should be doing anyway. You just pull out your tax returns and there is the proof. Reporting all of one's self-employment income doesn't just help with getting credit, it also impacts your future social security amount (assuming SS is still functional).

The problem is that the temptation to take lesson or gig fees under the table is great and many go for the short-term gain (avoiding onerous self-employment tax) at the expense of long-term gain (documented income and eventual higher social security checks), not to mention the psychic cost of putting a low value on personal integrity.

I get it. I report every dime of self-employment and we pay the price in outrageously high tax payments every year. It's especially galling knowing that loophole after loophole exists for those whose income is derived from passive investments while I sweat blood and pay double for every dollar I earn in self-employment. But even so, doing the right thing is the right thing to do.

tl:dr Report all your self-employment teaching and gig income (as you are legally required to do) and you can easily use it to get a mortgage or other loan.

Edited: June 18, 2018, 4:53 AM · And don't forget to document EVERY expense. They're all deductible, to the last penny.

Your chances of getting audited are extremely low unless you're claiming a huge income. Its not worth the IRS's time to go after a person who claims a self-employment income of $45,000 with $17,000 in deducible expenses. But it's way better to be safe than sorry.

For instance - Even if your gig is in the same city, only a few miles away from your place of residence, track your mileage. It adds up if you gig a lot. Just keep a mileage log and pen in your glovebox.

Turbo Tax self employed edition makes it easy to claim all of this stuff.

June 18, 2018, 6:46 AM · So the takeaway is...
Hobby: violin
Profession: tax lawyer or accountant
June 18, 2018, 7:17 AM · Nah. You can do it in a night if you use Turbo Tax. Just have a box handy on a bookshelf somewhere and get in the habit of throwing everything tax related (receipts, logs etc) in there. The software transfers last year's returns automatically and all you have to do is update the numbers.

Just make sure it's not the night of the 15th lol

June 18, 2018, 2:21 PM · By itself a BA or BM music major is of little economic value, but not the absolute bottom of the list. At least you have a skill. Some undergraduate majors, I won't name them, teach zero real job skills. If the minor or general ed. courses are carefully selected it is possible to switch departments for grad. school (law, business..) I knew a doctor with the BA degree in music from Oberlin, with enough of the pre-med science courses to get into med school. What is really needed, in my opinion, is the minor in music performance, which would include studio lessons. None of the UC or CSU schools do that.
June 18, 2018, 4:53 PM · About "double majoring," that's fine if the second major is purely theoretical such as psychology or economics. It won't work if it's a lab major like chemistry, or anything known to have very time-consuming projects, such as computer science.

I teach university chemistry, and even in my "STEM" field it's not all that easy to get a decent-paying, secure, chemistry-related job with a bachelor's degree alone. Most of our best students go on to graduate or professional school. Those that do get jobs with BS degrees have had internships or demonstrable research experience. We live in an age of increasing specialization and (global) competition. Whatever you decide to do, find a good institution and program where you can flourish and emerge among the leaders.

June 18, 2018, 5:30 PM · Paul,

I think that it depends on the individual. Some might not be able to manage a high workload, but a few people I have known have successfully pulled off a double major in lab oriented majors. One guy I knew did a BS in biomedical engineering at the same time as a BM in flute performance, and not only had time to freelance on flute, but also play other instruments he had learned such as viola and piano as a sub, and as accompaniment for friends’ audition videos. He did have some credits in advance though, having done most of the math he needed for his major by the beginning of high school.


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